Plumbing metaphysics

THE-CONVERSION-OF-AN-OLD-FASHIONED-SCULLERY-TO-A-BATHROOM-1-CP0362

Heath Robinson (Via https://www.chrisbeetles.com/ )

‘Above all’, Lawrence Durrell once wrote, ‘the French recognize that love is a form of metaphysical enquiry. The English imagine it has something to do with the plumbing.’[1]

Durrell was centrally concerned with love—and with France and the French—while I, though always also concerned with love, have lately had plumbing forced peremptorily on my attention. Such things as angle seat wrenches, drain seal gaskets, flue baffles, flush balls, tailpieces, ball valves and stopcocks, are all mysterious to me. Sometimes I seem to know what I’m looking at but the familiarity is elusive and recedes as I approach. I see a faint parallel with our visit the other day to the marvellous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.[2]

Anglo-Saxon-K

Apart from a lot of contextual information in different media, the main focus is on surviving artefacts: jewellery, weaponry, utensils but, above all, texts (its Latin root, ‘weaving’ very visible): exquisitely beautiful decorated manuscript pages of gospels, psalters, charters, letters, herbals, treatises, glossaries, of Boethius, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, Alfred’s translations. All these in a profusion of languages: particularly Old English and Latin, Greek and Hebrew; and runic as well as Roman alphabets; but mention is also made along the way of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Irish and Scots-Gaelic. Some of these pages arouse a strange sensation as if seeing something through bodies of water, a flickering instability, outlines familiar enough to have you straining to make out details which – once made out – only baffle or disorientate again.

Apart from the installation of a new radiator, the other plumbing issue of past days manifested itself in a wet sock. Walking from the kitchen to the stairs, I felt a wetness underfoot. We currently own no pets. ‘The floor’s wet at the bottom of the stairs’, I remarked. ‘Oh no’, the Librarian replied, with the audible sense of impending doom that I thought I’d reserved to myself. Above my head, the ceiling was stained and seemed to bulge a little. Just the light, or lack of it, I thought, as drops landed on my upturned face. British Gas, bless them, run a 24-hour service. I called, around seven that morning, was advised to turn off the water at the mains (post-showers, post-filling jugs and saucepans) and an engineer was with me by half-past nine.

As it happened, I’d been reading Sarah Perry’s first – and very distinctive – novel, After Me Comes the Flood, its unsettling nature signalled at the outset by that ambiguous ‘after’, both in the sense of temporal sequence and in that of pursuit. ‘Après nous le déluge’, Madame de Pompadour, influential mistress and confidante of Louis XV, apparently said, Louis himself being the alleged author of the alternative, more regal version (‘après moi’). James Joyce’s limerick for his friend Eugene Jolas concluded: ‘Après mot, le déluge.’[3] Revolution of the word, indeed.

Pompadour
(François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour, Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Reminded by all this of Charles Tomlinson’s 1981 collection, The Flood, I glance down the list of contents in his New Collected Poems and notice just how many of those poems concern – or connect to – water. The title poem begins:

It was the night of the flood first took away
My trust in stone. Perfectly reconciled it lay
Together with water – and does so still –
In the hill-top conduits that feed into
Cisterns of stone, cisterns echoing
With a married murmur, as either finds
Its own true note in such a unison.
It rained for thirty days. Down chimneys
And through doors, the house filled up
With the roar of waters. The trees were bare,
With nothing to keep in the threat
And music of that climbing, chiming din
Now rivers ran where the streams once were.[4]

‘The Flood’ is placed near the end of the volume, followed only by ‘Severnside’, ‘In the Estuary’ and ‘The Epilogue’ – ‘a fugue of water/ Startled the ear and air with distances/ Around and under us, as if a flood/ Came pouring in from every quarter’. ‘The Flood’ is preceded by ‘The Littleton Whale’, written in memory of Charles Olson and unsurprisingly including canal, river, sea, wave, mariner, tide, sloop ­ and whale. Before that, ‘Barque Nomen’ (‘tides reshape the terrain’), ‘Instead of an Essay’, written for Donald Davie (‘bay’, ‘coast’, ‘island’, ‘sea’, ‘stream’, ‘tide’) and ‘On a May Night’ (after the prose of Leopardi’s journal), a coachman’s daughter ‘washing a platter’ and predicting rain, which falls towards the end of the poem – so I stop there to remark that, quite apart from the mastery displayed in the individual poems, Tomlinson, like Yeats and like Pound (his recent biographer, David Moody, pays this aspect of Pound’s work a good deal of attention), was an accomplished architect of volumes, a builder of books.

Swimming-Chenango-Lake

David Morley’s new selection of Charles Tomlinson’s poems is called Swimming Chenango Lake (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018) and opens with the poem that gives the volume its title (the same poem opened The Way of a World, published in 1969).

Winter will bar the swimmer soon.
He reads the water’s autumnal hesitations
A wealth of ways: it is jarred,
It is astir already despite its steadiness,
Where the first leaves at the first
Tremor of the morning air have dropped
Anticipating him,
launching their imprints
Outwards in eccentric, overlapping circles.

Tomlinson’s next volume was entitled Written on Water (1972). It begins, reasonably enough, with a poem called ‘On Water’.

‘On’, not ‘in’. ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ was the sentence that John Keats asked Joseph Severn to have inscribed on his gravestone. ‘On’, two letters, carries at least two meanings. Alluding to the familiar notion of ships’ keels ploughing the waves, the poem suggests rather that:

‘Furrow’ is inexact:
no ship could be
converted to a plough
travelling this vitreous ebony:

seal it in sea-caves and
you cannot still it:
image on image bends
where half-lights fill it

with illegible depths
and lucid passages,
bestiary of stones,
book without pages:

and yet it confers
as much as it denies:
we are orphaned and fathered
by such solid vacancies:

I hear again the quiet eloquence of that colon (Pound’s Canto 1 ends ‘So that:’ and Canto 17 seems to continue this by beginning ‘So that the vines burst from my fingers’) and, come to think of it, the others in this short poem, functioning as more than line-endings. Incitements to thought, perhaps. Two exact rhymes, then two sight-rhymes (‘passages’/’pages’, ‘denies’, ‘vacancies’) and, again, the dialogue of stone and water. And other dialogues: ‘confers’ and ‘denies’, ‘orphaned’ and ‘fathered’ – finally, that ‘solid vacancies’, wonderful.

 
References

[1] ‘Letting the Book Breathe by Itself’, quoted by Ian MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 508.

[2] The catalogue is as impressive as you’d expect: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story (London: The British Library, 2018).

[3] Quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 587.

[4] Charles Tomlinson, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 361. All other poems quoted are from this edition. Tomlinson was thoroughly familiar with the writings of Adrian Stokes, ‘Part One’ of whose Stones of Rimini is called ‘Stone and Water’: water Stokes terms ‘the dominant natural carving force’: The Quattro Cento and The Stones of Rimini (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 31.

The teeth of the evidence – or the evidence of teeth

Fear-and-Loathing . Toorenvliet, Jacob, c.1635-1719; The Dentist

(Hunter Thompson; Jacob Toorenvliet, The Dentist: Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries)

‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”’

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, of course. And against this, what? ‘We were somewhere around Bridport when the toothache took hold.’ No. But the pain was real, one hundred per cent genuine pain; I gather that Thompson’s account was, say, seventy-five per cent actual, the rest invention. Still, that particular seventy-five is scary enough.

‘Why don’t you’, the Librarian inquires mildly, ‘just go to the dentist?’ Ah yes. There are subtle undercurrents here. On the phone to the Librarian’s mum, I ask: ‘How’s your tooth?’ ‘Quiet at the moment. How’s yours?’ ‘The same. Are you going to the dentist?’ ‘Do I want to disturb it? Won’t that just stir it up? Are you going?’ ‘Not sure yet.’ Yes. Why don’t you just . . . ?

I fleetingly recall an entry in Francis Kilvert’s diary about a dentist called Gaine and his discovery that a combination of concentrated carbolic acid and arsenious acid ‘will destroy the nerve almost entirely without pain.’[1] So much acid and no pain – almost? It sounds agonisingly unlikely. My recent dental visits have, in fact, been pretty uneventful. But teeth – a serious business. Probably the worst pain I remember is tooth-related: a mere bagatelle, most women would think, familiar as they are with chronic period pains, let alone the pains of childbirth, but I’m not too keen to go through it again.

Teeth bulked large in Ford Madox Ford’s life. In August 1911, he had ‘an awful week of dentistry’ in Paris and came to meet Violet Hunt at the Gare du Nord, ‘toothless and feckless’. He had had ‘four teeth cut one morning without gas. The dentist said he must have a week or ten days rest before beginning the lower jaw.’[2] Five years later, in March 1917, here is Ford’s friend Ezra Pound, writing to Alice Corbin Henderson: ‘Ford has been in hospital. All we know for certain is that his false teeth fell out.?? Ague or shell shock.???’[3]

Pound, teeth and Englishmen. ‘NO englishman is ever sufficiently evolved to stand civility’, he wrote to Wyndham Lewis in March 1939, when some encounter had clearly put him in a major snit. ‘KICK the bastards in the jaw FIRST.’ Commenting on this in the piece he wrote for a 1950 collection of essays assembled by Peter Russell, Lewis recalled it as: ‘There’s only one thing to do with an Englishman—kick him in the teeth’. Lewis explained that it concerned ‘a young English bibliophile’ he had sent to Rapallo’, adding that Pound’s patience ‘must have been sorely tried.’[4]

Lewis, Wyndham, 1882-1957; Mr Wyndham Lewis as 'Tyro'

(‘Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro’, Ferens Art Gallery © Estate of Mrs G. A. Wyndham Lewis; The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust)

Also tooth-related was ‘one of the great tragedies’ of Ford’s life, which occurred just before the First World War, when Ford was in Germany with the Liberal politician Charles Masterman and his wife. The landlord of the Hotel zur Post in Trêves, as a reward for having brought him ‘a British Excellency’, presented Ford with a bottle of 1813 brandy. ‘In the Mosel there is a stone that is only uncovered in years of great drought – which are years of glorious vintages. On such years they chain a barrel of brandy to that stone. When it is again uncovered they remove the old barrel and chain on a new one. That stone had not been uncovered since 1813. The bottle that the host gave me had been filled from the 1813 barrel.’ During the night, Masterman had toothache. ‘He poured by degrees the whole of that 1813 brandy into his mouth and spat it out again. By ringing the bell he could have procured a bottle of 1913 brandy for one franc fifty.’[5]

But then, as early as the turn of the century, teeth were an issue. When Joseph Conrad and Ford were collaborating on the novel that became The Inheritors and Conrad reluctantly attended to a female character—a part of what he usually termed ‘Ford’s women’—to the extent of granting her ‘good hair, good eyes and some charm’, it was ‘only with difficulty’, Ford recalled, ‘that he was restrained from adding good teeth to the catalogue. “Why not good teeth? Good teeth in a woman are part of her charm. Think of when she laughs. You would not have her not have good teeth. They are a sign of health. Your damn woman has to be healthy, doesn’t she?”’[6] By way of compensation, perhaps, the book does contain a dramatic critic who ‘furtively took a set of false teeth out of his waistcoat pocket; wiped them with a bandanna handkerchief, and inserted them in his mouth.’[7]

‘Do you know what Maupassant said about England?’, Colette wrote to Léopold Marchand in 1921, ‘“Too many toothbrushes and not enough bidets!”’[8] About bidets he was surely right but how many toothbrushes is ‘too many’?

Good night. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.

 

References

[1] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969): II, 100.

[2] See Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 346. And see Alan Judd, Ford Madox Ford (London: Collins, 1990), 388: ‘Never for long could he forget those teeth that Violet had paid for.’

[3] The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 201.

[4] Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, edited by Timothy Materer (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 208 and n.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 425.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 144.

[7] Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 31.

[8] Colette, Letters from Colette, selected and translated by Robert Phelps (London: Virago Press, 1982), 63.

Remembering to forget

Fuseli-night_hag

Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

‘Towards morning I was possessed by a kind of nightmare; I felt the fiend’s grasp in my neck and could not free myself from it; groans and cries rang in my ears. My father, who was watching over me, perceiving my restlessness, awoke me; the dashing waves were around, the cloudy sky above, the fiend was not here: a sense of security, a feeling that a truce was established between the present hour and the irresistible, disastrous future imparted to me a kind of calm forgetfulness of which the human mind is by its structure peculiarly susceptible.’[1]

A ‘calm forgetfulness’ (I lightly pass over that ‘irresistible, disastrous future’, on the fish-in-a-barrel principle) – in 1938-39, Henry Green was clear about the dangers of forgetting, of ageing and acceptance: ‘As I write now a war, or the threat of war, while still threatening seems more remote; a change of wind and the boat is blown in, there is nothing to do but tie up and call it a day. That is the pity of sobering down to middle age, there must be a threat to one’s skin to wake what is left of things remembered into things to die with. The crime is to forget.’[2]

Still, we know well enough the dangers, if not the crimes and misdemeanours, of selective remembering too. We’ve just passed the centenary of the end of the Great War Armistice and, as John Greening remarked recently in the TLS, ‘After four years of remembering the First World War, remembrance itself is being commemorated.’[3] There has been a lot of attention rightly paid to personal stories, men surviving only in blurry photographs or in fragmentary family histories. Meanwhile, the arguments about what actually brought the war about, the competence of various military leaders, the emergence and maintenance of myths that drive nations into further wars or into disastrous political decisions, continue and will continue.

In John Le Carré’s novel, A Most Wanted Man, Dr Abdullah remarks: ‘“That’s one of the great problems of the modern world, you know. Forgetting. The victim never forgets. Ask an Irishman what the English did to him in 1920 and he’ll tell you the day of the month and the time and the name of every man they killed. Ask an Iranian what the English did to him in 1953 and he’ll tell you. His child will tell you. His grandchild will tell you. And when he has one, his great-grandchild will tell you too. But ask an Englishman—?” He flung up his hands in mock ignorance. “If he ever knew, he has forgotten.”’[4]

‘The victim never forgets.’ Indeed. But who is the victim? In earlier catastrophes, from the Armenian genocide through Soviet purges to the Holocaust, the identity of the victims was not in doubt. But now? Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, Kashmir, Ukraine. Everyone claims victimhood. In some countries, angry white men claim that the only real victims are angry white men. The only inevitability is that innocent civilians, particularly women and children, will continue to bear the brunt of murderous violence and aggression.

opium-eater_quincey

And sometimes, the need to forget, at least for a while, is more urgent, more desperate, than the need to remember. ‘Life’, Balzac wrote, ‘cannot go on without a great a deal of forgetting.’[5] Julia Blackburn remarks that, ‘sometimes we need to remember things because only then can we forget’,[6] while, in a similar vein, the critic Frank Kermode observed that, ‘in the ordinary course of his written narrative, as of the interminable day-to-day account he gives himself of himself, the autobiographer will remember only in order to forget what he cannot bear to remember.’[7]

How easy is it to forget? Is it subject to the usual vagaries of the human mind and will – we unfailingly remember what we seek to forget while what we urgently need to remember falls immediately away? ‘Of this, at least, I feel assured’, Thomas De Quincey firmly asserted, ‘that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil — and that they are waiting to be revealed, when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.’[8]

Yes: you may think you’ve forgotten – but it’s in there somewhere. . .

 
References

[1] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, in Three Gothic Novels, edited by Peter Fairclough (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 455.

[2] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; The Hogarth Press, 1992), 50.

[3] John Greening, ‘Pity War Distilled: Poetry and the act of remembering’ (review of three recent books), Times Literary Supplement No. 6032 (9 November 2018), 9.

[4] John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), 341.

[5] Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Bette, translated by Marion Ayton Crawford (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 442.

[6] Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 193.

[7] Frank Kermode, Not Entitled: A Memoir (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 156.

[8] Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, edited by Alethea Hayter (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 104.

Last Post: one more parade

Last Post jpeg

We’ve just  launched Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society. So soon after the centenary of the Armistice, a paper signed in a railway carriage in Compiègne forest, we’ve been thinking about Ford in that context (among others).

“At the beginning of the war,” Tietjens said, “I had to look in on the War Office, and in a room I found a fellow What do you think he was doing what the hell do you think he was doing? He was devising the ceremonial for the disbanding of a Kitchener battalion. You can’t say we were not prepared in one matter at least. . . . Well, the end of the show was to be: the adjutant would stand the battalion at ease: the band would play Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant would say: There will be no more parades. . . . Don’t you see how symbolical it was: the band playing Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant saying There will be no more parades? For there won’t. There won’t, there damn well won’t. . . . No more Hope, no more Glory, no more parades for you and me any more. Nor for the country Nor for the world, I dare say None Gone Na poo, finny! No . . . more . . . parades!”[1]

In the midst of war, Christopher Tietjens looks back to a moment at the beginning of the war which looked forward to the end of the war. But that dizzying simultaneous backward and forward shift had occurred before the war in, fittingly, a book about moving through time. In Ford’s Ladies Whose Bright Eyes, published in 1911, the publisher William Sorrell is involved in a railway accident, from which he wakes, or seems to wake, in medieval England. ‘Supposing that his railway accident had really made him see something queer? Supposing that all these people were really just ghosts? He did not believe in ghosts. But, on the other hand, he was modern enough to know that in these days anything might happen, and suddenly he found himself saying to himself, that though he could not for the life of him say what he believed, he would not equally for the life of him say that he disbelieved any single thing.’ A little later, ‘he felt vaguely that if the ghosts from the past could come into the present, why in the world should not ghosts of the future be able to go back into the past?’[2] Is he himself a sort of ghost, he wonders?

LP-Blog-image

Parade’s End is, unsurprisingly, a haunted book, as was much of the literature that emerged from the conflict. ‘Ghosts were numerous in France at that time’, Robert Graves remembered, looking back to 1915. ‘Fall in, ghosts’, Edmund Blunden titled his essay on ‘a Battalion Reunion’.[3] Ford’s novel is haunted, in part, by the Armistice itself, peace after war, the first and third parts of A Man Could Stand Up— explicitly so, the reunion between Valentine Wannop and Christopher Tietjens taking place on Armistice Day, while all the main characters in Last Post recur obsessively to memories of Armistice Day or, for the most part, Armistice Night.

‘Do you not find’, Ford wrote to Isabel Paterson, in Last Post’s dedicatory letter, ‘that, however it may be with the mass of humanity, in the case of certain dead people you cannot feel that they are indeed gone from this world? You can only know it, you can only believe it. That is, at any rate, the case with me—and in my case the world daily becomes more and more peopled with such revenants and less and less with those who still walk this earth.’[4]

In Return to Yesterday, published three years later, Ford wrote that the three people in whose deaths he had never been able to believe were Conrad, Arthur Marwood and Jane Wells, wife of H. G. In an essay published in 1927, he stated that he had just ‘suddenly realised’ that Conrad, Henry James and Stephen Crane were all dead. He began writing Last Post a month after the death of another friend, the painter Juan Gris, and around the time his mother died.[5] Less than six months later, his old friend Charles Masterman, the Liberal politician and author, died at the age of fifty-four. All these deaths, following that of W. H. Hudson in 1922 and Joseph Conrad in 1924, individual as they are, also form part of a vast, cumulative wave of human loss, in and around that vast waste of life strewn across four years, thousands of miles and millions of casualties. Ford the writer and Ford the soldier had known his fair share of them: ‘I remember when I went to have lunch with the officers of our 2nd Battalion—all dead, the officers I had lunch with!—in Albert’.[6]

The first issue of Last Post ranges pretty widely, dwelling, as it happens, on neither war nor death: the stories contained in Ford’s own library (now in the Berg Collection, New York), Ford as reader, as literary ghost, as commentator on Anglo-German relations, as writer of detective stories, as subject of research, as point of reference in today’s America, plus a few reviews. Members of the Ford Madox Ford Society will receive two issues a year.

http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/

 
References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 27; see also the reconstruction of the previous volume’s original ending, the autograph fragment in Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 412.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Ladies Whose Bright Eyes: A Romance (London: Constable, 1911), 82-83, 100.

[3] Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2014), 157; Edmund Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected War Prose, edited with an introduction by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 77-93.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 5.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 371; Ford Madox Ford, New York Essays (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1927), 24-25. Max Saunders remarks on the indication that ‘this most elegiac of his books was an oblique elegy for his mother’: Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II, 316.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 134.

 

Raising a glass

L-Moet

Graham Greene described one of his characters as giving ‘an impression of unstable hilarity, as if perhaps he had been celebrating a birthday, alone.’ Suitable for some temperaments, perhaps, but certainly not all. Christina Rossetti seems, on the face of it, to have been unusually demanding in birthday terms:

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

We were a little less extravagant on the Librarian’s birthday but, should the idea appeal and funds be available, I’d certainly recommend a beach hut facing a brooding sea, a bottle of champagne and two glasses (clearly, mine is the one on the left).

Santé!

 

Frenchies and Russkis

(Ivan Turgenev and Pauline Viardot)

Ivan Turgenev was born two hundred years ago, on 9 November 1818, in Oryol, 220 miles southwest of Moscow; he died near Paris in 1883. Exiled in 1852 to his estate in Spasskoye when an obituary that he wrote on Gogol provoked disapproval, he spent most of his later life in Baden-Baden and Paris, always close to the singer and composer Pauline Viardot. He was long associated with the French realists, Flaubert, Zola, the brothers Goncourt.

I’ve read half a dozen of Turgenev’s novels in translation, mostly the work of Richard Freeborn, otherwise that of Constance Garnett. Probably because of the unfamiliar alphabet, the ‘original’ text seems even more distant than is the case with other languages and I’m more conscious that I’m reading the words of a translator. I’ve tended, in any case, to read those words through the eyes of Ford Madox Ford, for whom Turgenev, perhaps above all other writers, remained ‘a talismanic figure throughout his career’.[1] Unsurprisingly, I see that almost all the notes I’ve made or phrases I’ve marked in Turgenev’s books link back to Ford, some quite directly, some by more circuitous paths.

In 1878, Henry James published French Novels and Novelists, the eighth chapter of which concerned one ‘Ivan Turgénieff’. This is our man, his name spelt in a dashing Gallic manner. Richard Garnett remarks that Turgenev had ‘authorised and supervised, if not actually written, French translations of his works himself. Without ceasing to be a Russian he had become an honorary Frenchman.’[2] A good many English readers knew Turgenev’s work in French, even though English translations were becoming available. By the turn of the century, Constance Garnett had translated most of Turgenev’s fiction. Ezra Pound refers to ‘Turgeneff’ in a 1912 letter to his mother, possibly influenced by James in this instance,[3] but he certainly advises his mother to ‘take the things in french, if you can.’[4]

Turgenev visited this country a dozen times, often in the company of his friend—and translator of one of his books— W. R. S. Ralston. Ford, as a child of seven, had met them both in the studio of his grandfather, Ford Madox Brown. Forty years after that meeting, Ford wrote a novel called The Marsden Case. Sending a copy to his friend Edgar Jepson, he wrote: ‘I believe that, as “treatment,” it’s the best thing I’ve done—but the subject is not a very good one, though it’s one that has haunted me certainly ever since I was eighteen on and off. It’s the story of Ralston, the first translator of Turgenev—a man I liked very much. At any rate, that suggested it to me.’[5]

On another 9 November—1894—Olive Garnett confided to her diary that Ford’s brother Oliver, having been to Blomfield, where Ford (still Ford Madox Hueffer at that date) and his new wife Elsie were living, had passed on his ‘graphic account of the ménage’. Both Ford and Elsie were, apparently, smoking shag in a cutty pipe constantly on their walks. They were known, Olive noted, as the Frenchies, and their society ‘was that of the Vicar & his pretty daughter’.[6]

Constance Garnett and her son David, known as Bunny, mid-1890s

(Constance and David Garnett, 1890s)

Twenty years on, Ford was writing about Constance Garnett’s translation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Ford viewed Dostoevsky as Romantic, as against his admired ‘French Realist School – in which I should include Turgenev’.[7] The following year, writing about two other Russian writers, Ford again mentioned Turgenev, suggesting that he was ‘something more than merely Russian’.[8]

All these citizens of – somewhere, of several somewheres, managing to transcend the narrow bounds of nationality, reaching beyond borders, whether actual or imposed. Not that aggressive nationalism was ever entirely absent from the story. In the 1930s, Ford recalled seeing John Galsworthy give a presidential address to PEN. To French writers then, Ford remarked, Maupassant was ‘the Nihilist enemy’ and Turgenev ‘an alien ugly duckling who once disgusted the paving stones of Paris with his foreign footsteps.’ Ford described how, when the applause subsided, ‘poor Jack went on: Yes, he repeated, all the art he had had he had had of the French. If he stood where he was, if he was honoured as he was, it was because all his life long he had studied the works, he had been guided by the examples of . . . Guy de Maupassant and of him who though a foreigner by birth was yet more French in heart than any Frenchman—Ivan Turgenev!’[9]

Ford was himself a man of multiple roles, selves and aspects; born to a German father, possessed of Italian uncles and an aunt through his Aunt Lucy’s marriage; never divorced from his English wife; his third daughter born to an Australian painter while his partner by the thirties was a painter of Jewish family born in Eastern Poland; his closest literary relationships were with a Pole and an American; he fought in the British Army still bearing a German surname; and wrote in half a dozen different genres. He once observed—surely with a strong sense of recognition—that Turgenev ‘was by turns and all at once, Slavophil and Westerner, Tsarist and Nihilist, Germanophile and Francophobe, Francophile and Hun-hater’.[10] Homo duplex, homo x-plex. In 1925, he wrote to a friend that Some Do Not. . ., the first of the Tietjens novels, had done well in America but that, ‘Otherwise I am rapidly becoming a French writer.’[11]

Metzinger-Apollinaire-Christies

(Jean Metzinger, Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire, via Christie’s)

Curiously, exactly one hundred years after Turgenev’s birth, 9 November 1918, Guillaume Apollinaire died in the flu pandemic. Poet, prose writer and influential art critic, this ‘Frenchman by everything except birth’[12] had been born in Rome and then named Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki.

Here you are beside me again
Memories of my companions killed in the war
The olive-branch of time
Memories that make only a single memory
As a hundred skins make only a single coat
As these thousands of wounds make only a single newspaper article
Impalpable and dark presence who have assumed
The changing shape of my shadow

(from ‘Shadow’, translated by Christopher Middleton)

At the time of his death, Apollinaire was just thirty-eight years old.

 
References

[1] Max Saunders’ phrase. His ‘Ford and Turgenev’ is the most thorough reading of this literary relationship: see Ford Madox Ford’s Literary Contacts, edited by Paul Skinner (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 63-78.

[2] Richard Garnett, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991), 95.

[3] Richard Sieburth suggested this in Instigations: Ezra Pound and Remy de Gourmont (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1978), 96. Ford was referring to ‘Tourgénieff’ around this time: The Critical Attitude (London: Duckworth, 1911), 59.

[4] Ezra Pound, Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 283.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 149. Ralston died in 1889.

[6] Barry C. Johnson, editor, Olive and Stepniak: The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1893-1895 (Birmingham: Bartletts Press, 1993), 128.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Fydor Dostoevsky and The Idiot’ (14 February 1914), reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 129.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Sologub and Artzibashef’ (26 June 1915), reprinted in Critical Essays, 176.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 141-142.

[10] Ford, Portraits from Life, 158.

[11] Ford, Letters, 166.

[12] Francis Steegmuller, Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963), 322.

Electricity and beefsteak

Sky-through-stone

‘His eyes followed the high figure in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side. Coming from the vegetarian. Only weggebobbles and fruit. Don’t eat a beefsteak. If you do the eyes of that cow will pursue you through all eternity. They say it’s healthier. Windandwatery, though. Tried it. Keep you on the run all day.’ So James Joyce writes in Ulysses. Apparently this passage refers to George Russell (‘AE’) but it’s a figure that makes me think of George Bernard Shaw. In Richard Garnett’s biography of his grandmother, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life, he tells the story of Shaw inheriting £100 from his ‘ne’er-do-well’ father, who died in 1885. £15 was spent on a new suit produced by Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Company Limited. ‘Thereafter he looked like a toy made for a child by an inexpert knitter.’

As for the beefsteak. Ford Madox Ford, a great lover of wine – especially red wine – tried to persuade Joyce to drink it. Joyce preferred to drink white, comparing it to ‘electricity’ while regarding red wine as ‘liquid beefsteak’.

We’re fairly open-minded on the question in this house, though tending to Ford’s view of the matter rather than Joyce’s. There was a recent Q & A with Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor Who, which included:

Jodie-Whittaker

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Drinking wine every day. I have half a bottle a day. There’s a lot of pleasure in it and a lot of guilt, so it ticks both boxes.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/22/jodie-whittaker-q-and-a-drinking-wine-doctor-who

At that point, my wife made the noise that Librarians make when they come across a kindred spirit, though the word ‘guilt’ caused a moment’s bafflement.

Let me raise a glass, anyway, to my friends in America and send them all best wishes for tomorrow – and many tomorrows thereafter.